Alison Wenham: The Last Word

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The Independent Culture

The record industry has never innovated when it comes to pricing music. The full, mid and budget price points, with a few variations in between, is the best we have ever come up with. In the digital world, we have once again followed this startlingly dumb approach and gone for a download at a single price, as if everything was worth the same amount, and lasts as long as any other track. Tell that to Wagner.

Defensive explanations such as "it's too complicated", or "that's what the retailer likes" have never impressed me. For example, book publishers and their retailers work with myriad price points which reflect the value of the works to the consumer, from a limited edition Miro hardback, to a Penguin paperback. Surely it is up to the producer to price goods according to their perceived value. I have simply never understood why we have a fixed price point when music so obviously varies hugely from production to production.

For far too long this industry has been trapped inside a scruffy little plastic box with dodgy hinges. When the internet came along, we were afforded a golden opportunity to break away from conformist tradition and go for variable pricing to reflect the very real differences between, for example, a dance track generated from a computer at negligible cost, and a full blown orchestral recording which can cost tens of thousands of pounds to make.

Sad but true to say we opted for a "one-price-fits-all" approach. And when we tried to change it, the only retailer truly in the game said no. Apple rebuffed our belated attempts to introduce different price levels, and now we are stuck. One dominant price, one dominant retailer, and everyone wonders why file sharing remains the most popular price point.

The recent Radiohead promotion demonstrated flair and imagination, and showed that the value of music can differ, within the same set of tracks. No more the 79p dogma, but a truly imaginative variety of choices – from free to whatever price you want for the download, and £40 for the box set, which immediately transforms the CD into a collectable treasure.

Although the prospect of a free-for-all on pricing may put the fear of God into the industry, that is precisely what we now need.

Alison Wenham is Chairman and Chief Executive, AIM (The Association of Independent Music),